Actions That Help Leaders Grow
Senior Engineering Manager at Booking.com
Cultivating an open conversation culture can be challenging because people are more reserved in their thoughts. As a manager, I tend to experiment a lot in my management style and get great candid opinions out of direct reports, and I realized that it was not something easy. I realized that some people might as well open up during 1:1s and coaching conversations, but the best was when they had "a plate in front of them."
"The best was when they had 'a plate in front of them.'"
Over the years, I found that people do not always feel safe or comfortable sharing how they feel with their manager. In today's world, everything is different — it is no longer a one-way street where the manager would speak, and the team would directly listen and report to it. It is more like a conversation, especially for the coaching conversations for performance reviews. Most of the time, what interests a manager is how their team members are doing and what is in their minds. Previously, I took some of them for a walk around the building or to the meeting room for chit-chat, but nothing worked out as wonderfully as when I did take them out for lunch. Sharing a plate is one of the oldest ways to discuss things, and it works just as well for 1:1s, as when we “break bread” with our colleague!
"Sharing a plate is one of the oldest ways to discuss things, and it works just as well for 1:1s, as when we 'break bread' with our colleague!"
So, how can a manager have free-flowing conversations with their team members?
I tried multiple approaches: formal chats in a meeting room, a walk around the block, etc. When I see a dip in someone’s performance, I do not draw conclusions from it. I would take matters into my hand, just how we solve problems together at home in a family, and then call a meeting. I began by having breakfast meetings with them, but it did not really work out. I realized that they were not fully awake during the mornings, and would not really want to open up, plus the commute, so I had to change my approach.
A monthly lunch is usually where I get more into the nitty-gritty of things that help me have the right impact. When you are new in an organization, you will find yourself not being able to mix with others. People come to you with words of authority, like — should I do this? Can I do that or if I do this what will happen etc. That allowed me to tell them I do not want you to use this vocabulary with me and tell me more about what you intend to do. Do it and after that, we could have a conversation regarding the ramifications. Instead of giving permission, I wanted to change the narrative.
For a moment, I did not leave any stone unturned to help others grow in their careers in any way. Instead of saying what they should be doing, I communicated my experiences with them, so that became a learning curve for others. Plus, before jumping into any decisions, I weighed the pros and cons and tried to be rational. Before I was a tech manager, I used to be an athlete, and I had been coaching teams. It was not easy to get a group of teenagers to do anything on the field, and it was almost the same as managing a group of engineers.
This made them become terrific actors, and now they are able to take the absolute spot-on decisions and proceed. So, in the end, it is just finding the right environment for the outcome to happen, like the delivery and the predictability of the team, all the way down to having the right information and content to help people drive their careers.
- Don’t force growth down people’s throats if they don’t want to. Not everyone desires to become a Staff Software Engineer within 3 years of joining a company! Someone can be just fine performing well at mid or senior level, and that’s fine! I think that would be the advice, make sure that you understand what your people want out of their job.
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Senior Engineering Manager at Booking.com
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